Radiance is an extremely clever romance, and the good-natured ribbing between the two leads, whose species find each other unforgivably ugly, is hilarious. It’s also a very thoughtful and reasoned take on societal beauty standards, and how remarkably different perceptions can be between two groups who aren’t all that dissimilar, but project and amplify their differences into something grotesque.
Ildiko is a regular human noblewoman who enters a diplomatic marriage with Prince Brishen of the Kai. Neither is dragged kicking and screaming into it, because they both understand their duties, but it’s well understood by each of their countrymen that they are supremely unlucky to have to share a marriage bed with the “thing” they’ll be wedded to. Humans are humans in this fantasy world, and the Kai are themselves mostly humanoid but for some key differences: they have razor-sharp teeth and claws, their skin is grey, and their eyes seem rather metallic and reptilian. To the (presumably) human reader, it is understandable how these traits might be off-putting! On the other hand, Grace Draven’s suppositions on how humans might be monstrous to the Kai, are smart, empathetic, and very funny. Caucasian pinkish-white skin becomes reminiscent of mollusks, our square teeth are like those of a cow, and our eyes, with irises that move around, are nightmarish.
I’ve never read a romance so dedicated to the conceit that it’s what’s inside that counts, and yet, it doesn’t just play the one joke of the leads being repulsive to each other to death. There’s actually an interesting story here, that starts with some run-of-the-mill assassination attempts, sorcery, and animosity among sovereign nations. This plot promises to extend over a few more books, in a direction that I am rather excited about. Ildiko and Brishen are also charismatic leads, as appealing to the reader as they are to each other.
This book would not have been on my radar if it weren’t for the VF Book Club, which I am going to try to be better about following this year. It was a great pick to start with in January.